Not everyone studies the same way- some people are happy cramming everything at the last minute, and some require pages covered in highlighter to feel prepared. But studies have shown that there are a few tried-and-tested techniques to not only remember enough information to pass an exam, but also retain it for years to come.
If anyone’s going to know a thing or two about learning difficult concepts effectively, it’s everyone’s favourite theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Richard Feynman.
In his 1993 biography about Feynmen - Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman - author James Gleick discusses the early learning techniques used by the physicist when he was going through graduate school at Princeton University:
“[He] opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: NOTEBOOK OF THINGS I DON’T KNOW ABOUT. For the first but not last time he reorganised his knowledge. He worked for weeks at disassembling each branch of physics, oiling the parts, and putting them back together, looking all the while for the raw edges and inconsistencies. He tried to find the essential kernels of each subject.”
Learning something difficult requires a lot of deep learning to fully understand it. Sometimes it can be difficult to know where to even begin, but organising your thoughts in a notebook could make getting started seem a little less daunting.
“Translate your growing knowledge of something hard into a concrete form and you’re more likely to keep investing the mental energy needed to keep learning,” Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University, writes on his blog.
But what other tips have been scientifically proven to help you study or learn things more effectively? Well, unfortunately there is no magic cure - it mostly comes down to being prepared and taking breaks.
Interval studying instead of cramming is one of your best bets. And you also need to revise the content earlier. A 2007 study from the University of South Florida and University of California have found that you’re better off studying closer to the lecture where you learnt something new than closer to the day of the exam.
It’s also arguably better to study using handwritten notes than a computer. IPads, eBooks and computer screens have been shown to slow down your reading speed and make it harder to remember what you just read.
Taking breaks is also necessary and effective. The brain is like a muscle, and unsurprisingly, tires from constant stress. If you’re able to take breaks every hour or so, it will help increase the effectiveness of your study techniques and cognitive abilities. A 2014 study from the University of Toronto showed that not taking a proper lunch break can also lower productivity.
Finally, don’t just read the material over and over. Although it seems like the easiest way to study, it's definitely not the most effective. A 2010 study from Washington University in St. Louis looked at the effectiveness of repeated testing over repeated studying and found that testing yourself was much more effective than just re-reading the material. Flash cards or even closing your eyes to recall information is also more effective than going over the material to retain whatever it is you are trying to learn.
The bad news is that to study effectively, you have to put in the effort – there’s no easy answer. But the good news is there are so many techniques to try, whether it’s something like a notepad full of concepts you don’t understand or flash cards and quizzes. Just find what works best for you, and good luck!